Oregon will allow students to take 'mental health days' just as they would sick days, expanding the reasons for excused school absences to include mental or behavioral health under a new law that experts say is one of the first of its kind in the U.S.
The students behind the measure say it's meant to change the stigma around mental health in a state that has some of the United States' highest suicide rates. Mental health experts say it is one of the first state laws to explicitly instruct schools to treat mental health and physically health equally, and it comes at a time when educators are increasingly considering the emotional health of students. Utah passed a similar law last year.
Haily Hardcastle, an 18-year-old from the Portland suburb of Sherwood who helped champion the mental health bill, said she and other student leaders were partly motivated by the national youth-led movement that followed last year's Parkland, Fla., school shooting.
"We were inspired by Parkland in the sense that it showed us that young people can totally change the political conversation," she said. "Just like those movements, this bill is something completely coming from the youth."
Hardcastle, who plans to attend the University of Oregon in the fall, said she and fellow youth leaders drafted the measure to respond to a mental health crisis in schools and to "encourage kids to admit when they're struggling."
Debbie Plotnik, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Mental Health America, said implementing the idea in schools was an important step in challenging the way society approaches mental health issues.
Suicide is Oregon's second leading cause of death among those ages 10 to 34, according to data from the state Health Authority. Nearly 17 percent of eighth-graders reported seriously contemplating taking their lives within the past 12 months. And it's not just an Oregon problem, although the state does have a suicide rate 40 percent higher than the national average. The national suicide rate has also been on the rise and recently hit a 50-year high, climbing more than 30 percent since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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